In the late summer of 1864, Union Major General Philip Sheridan’s Army of the Shenandoah crushed through the Shenandoah Valley, destroying everything that could possibly provide succor to the struggling and desperate Confederate army, a force challenged daily by lack of provisions. Warren Perry, a former writer at the National Portrait Gallery, looks at the final large-scale installment in this campaign, the Battle of Cedar Creek, in which nearly 50,000 men fought for control of the “breadbasket of the Confederacy.”
Before dawn on October 19, Lt. General Jubal Early flung his force of 14,000 men, poorly equipped and hungry, at Sheridan’s much larger army in a surprise attack near Middletown, Virginia. The Union Army was overcome and in full retreat by mid-morning. Sheridan was in Winchester when the attack began, but soon raced to the front on his horse Rienzi, arriving at the battlefield in time to rally his troops for a counter-attack by late afternoon. After the victory, the horse was renamed Winchester.
Total casualties numbered approximately 8,600 (5,700 Union and 2,900 Confederate), making it one of the bloodiest battles in the Shenandoah. Early’s defeat at Cedar Creek was a defeat for the entire Confederacy: The South was meagerly provisioned already, and this loss greatly tightened the Union’s stranglehold.
In addition to the battle, Perry discusses several objects in Smithsonian collections related to the Cedar Creek conflict. Among them are Sheridan’s horse, Winchester; a 1871 painting by Thomas Buchanan Read, Philip Henry Sheridan; a carte de visite portrait of Jubal Early, c. 1865; and a monumental portrait, Grant and His Generals.
The program is part of a series presented by the National Park Service and Belle Grove National Historical Park that focuses on a broad spectrum of topics related to the 150th anniversary of the 1864 Shenandoah Campaign. Find more details here or call 540-869-3051.
“My first impression of Sheridan? He wasn’t a very big man, which suited me just fine. I was big for a Morgan, 16 hands high and strongly built, but even so, you can run a lot faster when you’re carrying less weight. Maybe that’s why I was able to make that dash from Winchester to Cedar Creek in time to rally the troops...”
Learn the story of the Smithsonian’s own war horse, Winchester, at the American History Museum.